Wednesday, June 15, 2011

South of Superior by Ellen Airgood

Mining the Lake Superior shores of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Ellen Airgood creates McAllaster, a hamlet filled with eccentric characters similar to those found in Richard Russo’s forgotten mill towns.   Airgood infuses an unlikely blend of rascals and saints with a spirit that seems to come only in remote locales.  Madeline Stone, a Chicago waitress about to marry a professor and begin to live her dream of art school, abandons it all to move five hundred miles north to help care for Arbutus, an incapacitated woman she’s barely met.  Elderly sisters Gladys and Arbutus are two of the most engaging women to populate a town since the novel Broken for You introduced a disparate cast that made the word community meaningful. Toss in a man with a dream, a mentally challenged uncle, a messed up single mother and her charming son and you’ll be ready to head north to meet this crew yourself.

The town is the true main character though as Madeline notes: “McAllaster was a kind of a tribe.  This wasn’t cozy or nice. She sensed that it was an equation, that membership would exact a price: the loss of privacy, anonymity, certain freedoms she’d taken for granted in Chicago, maybe the loss of the right to selfishness.  Everybody in the tribe didn’t love each other. They disagreed and gossiped and argued; they laid traps for each other and rejoiced when the trap was sprung; they relished placing blame wherever it would stick and took pleasure in one another’s mistakes.  But when there was trouble, there was help.”

Airgood’s novel is predictable in the way that we want summer reads to be predictable. This predictability makes it flow as the characters behave as real, caring people do when they’re broke, hurt, or damaged yet still manage to do the right thing most of the time.

Small town life isn’t for sissies nor is surviving in northern Michigan’s harsh, economically impoverished areas but this novel depicts the troubles and the rewards of opening yourself to others regardless of where you live.  I flat out fell in love with these characters and flew through this wonder of a novel determined to drive north to eat at the diner the author runs.  Her interviews of several lifelong residents and what must be her keen ear as she serves those who eat at the diner surface in the dialogue that both sings and carries the plot.

Summing it Up:  Take this feel-good book about a group of unforgettable characters to the shore of your favorite lake for a perfect summer escape.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast

Publication date: June,9, 2011

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